Two consecutive weeks have produced two unexpected winners on the NASCAR Cup Series. Cole Custer’s four-wide pass as the cars were taking the white flag at the Kentucky Speedway and Austin Dillon’s pit strategy combined with perfect restarts in the late stages of the race at Texas Motor Speedway earned checkered flags for those drivers. But at the same time, wins by drivers who were by no means guaranteed a spot in the upcoming NASCAR Playoffs further intensified the pressure for those who find themselves on the bubble.
What’s more, two of those drivers who are flirting with not making the cut in terms of the playoffs are also in the final year of their contracts with their current teams and find themselves in an even more desperate situation. That’s exactly where Clint Bowyer and Erik Jones are right now.
It’s somewhat telling as far as their statuses with their current teams is concerned that when at the end of 2019 both Bowyer and Jones had expiring contracts with Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing that each was only re-signed for one year. It stands to reason that if those two championship contending organizations had long-term plans in mind for those particular drivers, they would have offered three or even five year extensions rather than just a single season.
A win by a driver who stands inside the top-30 of the NASCAR standings locks that driver into the NASCAR Playoffs, which begin when the schedule reaches the point of having ten races remaining. A driver can also make the playoffs by being the highest ranked in the standings among those drivers who have not won a race until the sixteen positions are filled. Since neither Custer nor Dillon were by any means locked into playoffs based on their point totals, their wins assured them of spots but also took spots away from those who find themselves near the cutoff line.
With ten drivers now having won at least one race this season, there are, for the moment, six open spots for those who are having to rely on their places in the standings. SHR’s Bowyer is currently fifth in the rankings among those who have yet to win a race, 34 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 36 markers up on William Byron.
Obviously, the number of open places is diminished every time a driver from further back in the standings wins a race. Should someone such as a Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick or Christopher Bell find victory lane, the number of open spaces is reduced that much more and brings about the possibility that drivers near the cutoff line, such as Bowyer or Johnson, could be squeezed out of the championship picture.
Stewart-Haas driver Kevin Harvick has four wins and currently leads the NASCAR Cup Series standings. Furthermore, the No. 4 Ford has been a regular fixture in the Championship 4 race held at the end of the season. And as already mentioned, SHR rookie Custer is now locked into the playoffs with teammate Aric Almirola highly placed enough in the standings that he will almost certainly make the cut when the time comes.
JGR’s Jones is in even more jeopardy than Bowyer.
With no wins to his credit, Jones ranks ninth among those hoping for one of those six open positions. Standing 24 points below the cutoff, a win or at least several top-5 or top-10 finishes are a necessity at this point for the 24-year-old driver who came to one of the most powerful organizations in racing with big expectations placed on him. And while he has won twice in the No. 20 Toyota, he has failed to keep pace with teammates Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
Another driver who has to be feeling the pressure intensify is William Byron. Unlike Bowyer and Jones, he has at least one more year remaining on his contract past this season. But like those two, he races for a powerful organization that has other drivers who are winning races and contending for titles while he is not. Both Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman have won in 2020.
Hendrick Motorsports added Byron to their driver lineup when Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired. In his two-and-a-half seasons as the pilot of the legendary No. 24 Chevrolet, the young driver has not yet won a NASCAR Cup Series race and only has an 11th in the final standings(2019) as his highest points placing to date.
The 22-year-old racer has the credentials of someone who should be succeeding at NASCAR’s highest level. He was the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion and won seven NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series races in 2016. But for whatever reason, things just haven’t completely clicked for him at the Cup Series level.
But there is another complicating factor in the mix for Byron. At the beginning of the 2019 campaign, crew chief Chad Knaus was moved from the HMS No. 48 team to lead his effort. The complication comes from the fact that when people look at Byron’s lack of performance, they are not going to place the blame on a seven-time championship winning pit boss.
Bowyer took to the internet on Monday to say that he had not really had any talks regarding his future with SHR but had discussed his situation with some of the team’s partners. He further went on to say that his first priority has to be that of running better and producing more on the track.
That same statement can be made for each of the three drivers mentioned in this piece. Virtually everything in racing boils down to who is willing to pay the driver’s way. Not winning races and failing to make the playoffs makes it easier for sponsors to say no.
When Cole Custer and Austin Dillon won NASCAR Cup Series races, they forced themselves into the NASCAR Playoffs. At the same time, they also assured that at least two drivers without wins will not make it. How costly will it ultimately be for those who don’t get into the NASCAR Playoffs?
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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